Figure skating: Singapore's 2017 SEA Games champion Yu Shuran opens up about systemic abuse in China

Yu Shuran stands on the podium after the SEA Games women's figure skating competition on Aug 27, 2017.
Yu Shuran stands on the podium after the SEA Games women's figure skating competition on Aug 27, 2017.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - While recounting the constant beating, kicking and verbal abuse she allegedly suffered for years while training in China, former national figure skater Yu Shuran spoke in tones so measured that one could almost miss the undercurrent of anger behind her words. 

Being hit by her coach repeatedly with a plastic blade guard till her skin was raw. Getting kicked by the toe-pick of her coach’s blade – the small, jagged edges at the front of the blade – and having to continue practice despite bleeding. Being driven to a secluded area during an overseas training camp, then getting dragged out of the car for a beating as punishment for a bad practice session.

“I don’t know if there’s one worst incident because it just shouldn’t be happening in the first place... there were some incidents that were worse than others,” the 19-year-old told The Straits Times.

“But the fact that it happened over the course of a few years and there were a few years where I was constantly scared to get on the ice, I think that might be the worst part because it’s so systemic.”

The 2017 SEA Games champion, who was born and raised in Beijing by a Chinese mother and a Singaporean father, was speaking to this newspaper via video conference on Thursday (July 23).

She opened up on Wednesday via Instagram about the abuse she suffered while training in China, revealing in her post that the physical abuse started when she was 11 years old.

At age 13, she recalled feeling “so burnt out” and coming close to quitting because being on the ice “just wasn’t enjoyable any more”.

Yu, who retired in 2018 after being diagnosed with a neurological disorder, said: “Knowing all of this now, that shouldn’t come as a surprise because why would it be enjoyable when I’m literally being yelled at, cursed at, insulted and attacked all the time?”

Those at the rink witnessed the abuse, she said, adding that some parents had justified the coach’s actions by telling her that he “cares about your results” and “he thinks you have potential”.


Singapore figure skater Yu Shuran in action on the ice at the 2015 Junior Grand Prix in Logrono, Spain. PHOTO: ISU JUNIOR GRAND PRIX OF FIGURE SKATING LOGRONO 2015

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She added: “There’s almost this validation that people try to attach to it for me. I didn’t agree with that but at the same time, it got to my head in the sense that if everyone’s seeing this and no one’s doing anything about it, how wrong is it?”

The abuse “lessened by a lot” around the time she turned 16, recalled Yu, and that was when she regained her love for the sport. 

“How I got through the tougher parts (of the abuse) was just to numb it out... maybe it was a method while I was competing, but I realised it’s not good to just go through your teenage years numb,” said Yu, who in 2017 was Singapore’s first figure skater to qualify for the International Skating Union (ISU) World Figure Skating Championships. 

“Right now I’m processing things for the first time and, whatever I ‘numbed out’ before, I still have to process now.”

The “processing” started when she read American Olympic champion gymnast Laurie Hernandez’s public account of how the latter was verbally and emotionally abused by her former coach Maggie Haney.

Yu said: “I feel really bad but it just shows how messed up it is that the first thing I (thought) after reading it was, ‘That’s not that bad.’

“That just goes to show how insanely internalised and normalised that had become for me, because I resonated with every single part of her story... 

“I didn’t even know the verbal and emotional stuff could be considered abuse.”

Her decision to speak out was also in part driven by Athlete A, the Netflix documentary detailing former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s abuse of the girls and young women under his care, and several elite British gymnasts’ allegations of physical and emotional abuse. 

Since going public with her account, Yu has received messages from other athletes in and outside skating about how they can relate to her story.

“It’s so disappointing because you don’t want anyone to be able to relate to that and you can’t find joy in that,” she said. 

“But, at the same time, it highlights that it’s a much bigger problem than we ever realised.

“Skating is a very enjoyable thing and yes, it’s a very difficult sport and it requires sacrifice and hard work. But that should always be rewarding and not in a way that’s done to make the athlete feel miserable.”

Urging national governing bodies around the world to re-evaluate their policies and question if they are doing enough to prevent and treat abuse cases, she added: “There needs to be education done for coaches around the world about how abuse just isn’t a valid method.

“There has to be a sentiment, where we want to protect the child at all costs and I say child very deliberately because so often we’re not treated as children, when we are. We’re treated as robots and machines that are produced to get results, and then discarded after we’re done getting results.

“People absolutely have to start seeing athletes as children and even if they’re legally adults, they’re people, not robots.”

While she had remained silent early on, she has pledged to speak up about the matter now in order to continue shedding light on the issue.

“I was silent for a long time and right now, I don’t intend on being anything but loud about this, because if I’m not loud about it... this issue overall will still be ignored,” she said. 

Yu’s allegations follow recent accounts of physical and mental abuse suffered by athletes from Australia and Britain.

A Human Rights Watch report released this week also found that child athletes in Japan have suffered physical, sexual and verbal abuse from their coaches.